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The Athletic: Dele absent from Tottenham squads because he had his “head turned”

According to sources close to the club, Dele was looking at greener pastures, but is now likely to stay and fight for his place.

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Tottenham Hotspur Training Session Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

For a few weeks now Tottenham Hotspur fans and those that cover the club have been scratching their heads about attacking midfielder Dele’s exclusion from matchday squads. Dele was left out of the past three matches entirely by Jose Mourinho, including this past weekend’s 1-1 league draw against Newcastle.

For many, it’s been tantamount to an admission that the two players have been feuding. Mourinho was shown calling Dele “a lazy trainer” to his face in the recent Amazon “All Or Nothing” documentary, and recent exclusives from Matt Law in the Telegraph have painted a picture of a player disillusioned with Mourinho and unhappy with his place in the club.

There may be some truth in those reports, but according to the latest reporting from The Athletic (£), it’s more nuanced than that. Charlie Eccleshare writes that Mourinho thought Dele had his “head turned” by a potential moves out of Tottenham, possibly related to the rumors of a loan interest from PSG.

The Athletic understands that part of the reason was that before the Chelsea game Mourinho felt that Dele’s head had been turned by links with a move away from the club. “They were a major distraction,” says one source. At that point it looked as though Dele wouldn’t feature for Spurs again until after the transfer window was closed, even though Dele disputed the idea he was distracted and felt he had always been fully engaged this season.

—Charlie Eccleshare, The Athletic

If you have an Athletic subscription, it’s well worth reading Eccleshare’s full interpretation of what’s going on between Dele and Mourinho. If you believe this interpretation of past events, Dele was left out because Mourinho thought there were other players in the squad who had their head on straight. Eccleshare describes this approach by Mourinho as an attempt to instill a “meritocracy” at the club, and actively compares it to what Mikel Arteta is also trying to do at Arsenal with Meszut Özil and Matteo Guendouzi.

Dele is said to have reacted positively to being left out of the side, has trained well over the past week, and could be in line to feature in this afternoon’s Europa League playoff match vs. Maccabi Haifa. It would make a certain amount of sense, especially considering the number of exhausted players currently in the side that have played an extraordinary amount of minutes in a short period of time.

That doesn’t change the fact that Dele is still seen as something of a square peg in a round hole in Mourinho’s squad. As has been discussed here and in the comments, Mourinho doesn’t really have an established role for Dele in the way he likes to play as a free #10 who operates between the lines. That, along with a perceived lack of improvement over the past couple of years has led to the suggestion that Dele may be a luxury player in Mourinho’s system, and hence the manager is open to a loan or sale.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It is looking more likely that Dele will NOT be sold or loaned this season unless the club gets an offer that’s too good to refuse, which considering the amount of money the club would want for him seems unlikely.

Eccleshare is suggesting that the model Dele may try and follow is that of Tanguy Ndombele, who despite being unhappy with Mourinho after a disappointing first season with Tottenham, has worked hard and turned things around, both personally and professionally. You can argue — and some have — that Ndombele’s turnaround had as much to do with Daniel Levy refusing to sell a player that Mourinho had seemingly given up on as anything the player did on the training pitch. The cynic might also say that the potential conflict with Dele is the latest in a string of “feuds” Mourinho has had with his players dating back several club appointments.

But Mourinho is a manager who wants his players to fight for their places, and according to Eccleshare the scenario has been set up and the die has been cast. It looks like Dele is going to stay, unless something dramatic happens between now and when the window slams shut on Monday.